URA following rules only, but being very stupid (in my opinion)

Have you heard the news? Check it out here: URA sees red over graffiti art on shophouse.

What is the purpose of conservation? In Mass Effect 3, the Reapers (alien robot monsters) claim that they’re protecting us from ourselves when they “preserve” us in grotesque robotic shells. Something feels incredibly wrong- the Reapers aren’t saving us, they’re destroying us! We are more than our organic matter, aren’t we?


(This is what the URA proposes doing to shophouses, and Singaporean culture, and probably Singaporeans too, really. Jeng jeng jenggg.)

In trying to “preserve” or “conserve” the shophouses, the URA would inadvertently destroy the organic life and culture that has developed wonderfully on Haji Lane. Okay, I’d like to give Haji more credit than that- I bet that they’d adapt to it and survive anyway, but why are we discouraging the very sort of culture and vibe that our Government keeps telling us we need? This is the exact sort of hypocrisy that drives people to apathy or migration.

Now here’s the deal- no matter what our Government or the URA or any other top-down specialist says, the truth is that we know incredibly little about how life and culture emerges. We don’t have it on tap. That’s why it’s such a big deal when it happens, and that’s why I personally feel that we have no right to interfere in these matters if there isn’t any danger or threat. (Safety regulations, etc.)

The air has to be just right, all the ingredients have to be there in the right place, at the right time, put together the right way- and nobody really knows how to do this. It’s different every single time. This is why it’s so important that we protect and nurture it when it happens. That’s why it’s a newsworthy event: See NYTimes- Singapore Lane Springs To Life.

Graffiti is just paint, what! We can always repaint the shophouses if we see fit, at any time. Why fix what isn’t broken? Why now, when everything is going great? Must we really tamper and interfere with every last thing that’s going on?

Most of what I want to say has been said by everythingalsocomplain.com. Here are the points that they made, in summary:

  • The URA guide is loaded with fuzzy terms like ‘unique features’, or how a ‘traditional’ design ‘lends character’ to the neighbourhood.
  • Even their spokespeople say they would clamp down on designs that rouse ‘great concerns’. (What is a “great concern”?)
  • If giving these old fogie shophouses a snappy ‘tattoo’ is what it takes to keep the little curiosity that is Haji Lane abuzz and ALIVE in all its quirky, laid-back hipness without losing too much of its ‘old world charm’, then the URA should afford to ‘close one eye’ to architectural anomalies like the bizarre blue house at the end of the street.

Architectural anomalies are part of what make urban life interesting. Come on lah, you’re the bloody URA- don’t you have people who’ve studied architecture and urban planning and all of those things, on scholarships and whatnot? Don’t you have people who are passionate about urban spaces? Can’t you recognize a good thing when you see it?

Conservation shouldn’t mean keeping things in an ancient bubble, artificially frozen in time. Sure, there should always be some examples of what the shophouses used to look like a hundred years ago. But above all else, there should be life, and there should be soul. Urban spaces, like language, evolve over time- and that doesn’t mean destroying the old in favour of the new. Only “urban planners” and “central authorities” do that. Communities rarely destroy their own culture, history and heritage- rather, they do something amazing- they repurpose the old and make it relevant to the new. Think about what we do with words- how languages adapt, grow, mature.

We’ll always have Shakespeare, and we always should. History is important. There will always be  people who want to watch Shakespearean plays in the old language, in the old setting, to get a sense of what it used to be like. That’s great. But that doesn’t mean we should discourage theater from adapting and evolving.

I’m pretty damn sure that the folk at Haji Lane treasure their shophouses. These people care about the soul of the place. I bet you that every single patron and vendor at Haji would be mortified if the shophouses were replaced with “modern” buildings. These are the people who are sick of all the urbanization and all the homogenous malls everywhere. You can trust them to do the right thing.

Growth and development is fundamentally organic. You have to have a little faith and allow people to put their own spin on things.

To me, this is just another manifestation of one of the things that I think fundamentally needs to change in Singapore. There is a bias in favour of rules and regulations over common sense. Sim Wong Hoo’s No U-Turn Syndrome has never left us- and it continues to rear its ugly head again and again.

Let people be people lah. There’s no “great concern” that a shophouse on Haji Lane has a little unique paint on it. Things grow and evolve over time naturally, organically.

Please, URA- don’t do anything stupid. Let Haji Lane be Haji Lane. 

The National Conversation is lame, but the future looks good to me

New Asia Republic: National Conversation: PAP wrapping itself in a cocoon

An enlightened citizenry is a good thing. If we hold the government accountable the way the student questioned the professor in the above article, well, everybody* is better off for it!

I don’t imagine that governments will be completely redundant anytime soon. We’ll still always need people to make legislative and executive decisions on behalf of the collective.

What gets redundant, then? The government will lose its ability to use hard propaganda to directly influence public sentiment. Any such attempts will now backfire. The pre-internet PAP’s tactics- whatever your opinion on them- have become obsolete. More than obsolete- they’re outright counter-productive.

Am I for or against this? Personally, and philosophically, I am for it. I like that the PAP won’t get to dominate the Singaporean narrative anymore. But perhaps I only say this because I am not in power. Lee Kuan Yew would be against Lee Kuan Yew if he were  an Opposition Party member. (And for those who are too young or blur to remember- he was!)

But that’s actually besides the point. The reality of it is what it is. We cannot turn back the clock, and we cannot reverse the tides of progress. Politicians are going to have to figure out how to navigate this new, increasingly complex reality. That is a good thing.

Refinement: It could be argued that this is bad for the PAP, the same way the professor’s reputation might have been “affected” by the student’s questioning. I dispute this. Challenge is healthy and good. Nobody is right 100% of the time. I’m glad to see the PAP being challenged by Singaporeans. Good! It’s only threatening for the PAP if the PAP is stubborn and demands to be allowed to persist unchanged, without “upgrading” and “re-inventing” itself (insert your own favourite buzzwords as you please.)

PS: The PAP can actually tell Paul Krugman to shut up. That’s the reality of how complex economics has become. Just because Krugman says something does not mean that it is true in all circumstances (although he is a great guy who clearly knows his stuff.) But that in itself doesn’t mean that Krugman would be wrong, and that the PAP would be right. Legitimacy has to be earned and re-earned every day. The “enlightened citizenry” of today now gets to decide what sort of country we want to have, and what sort of government we want representing us.

“There are two things that the PAP is up against, more intelligent Singaporeans who are backed up by unlimited information at their disposal. It is either the PAP embraces this eventuality or be overwhelmed. Talking to fellow party members as participants in the National Conversation doesn’t cut it. Neither does exclusion of people who harbour an opposite viewpoint.”

I agree completely.  The PAP will have to adapt or perish, and either way the PAP of 2020 is going to be unrecognizable when compared to the  PAP of the 1970s. What is most interesting and humbling about the whole situation- as an observer- is realising that the PAP inevitably sowed the seeds of its own destruction, renewal and rebirth. It was the PAP’s policies that (to some degree at least, surely) laid the foundation for an intelligent, enlightened populace (if we have one).

In essence, the PAP is like the stereotypical parent who wants what’s best for his children, and finds out one day that he has taught them to think for themselves, and they no longer agree with him on everything. You have to ask, is this good for the parents, or bad?

By the way, if we have arrived at an “enlightened citzenry”, why STOMP and Yahoo Comments still so like that ah? I think we give ourselves too much credit- we will never achieve 100% enlightenment, and there will probably always be a few crazy buggers with conspiracy theories and whatnot- but what matters is that we hit a critical mass of decent, intelligent folk who have decent discussions and conversations about what we want for ourselves- and the rest will probably just follow suit, or be drowned out. We have to rise above the noise.

One of my favourite poems, which I think is highly relevant. Try to think about the PAP and the Singaporean populace when reading this:

On Children
 Kahlil Gibran

Your children are not your children.
They are the sons and daughters of Life’s longing for itself.
They come through you but not from you,
And though they are with you yet they belong not to you.

You may give them your love but not your thoughts,
For they have their own thoughts.
You may house their bodies but not their souls,
For their souls dwell in the house of tomorrow,
which you cannot visit, not even in your dreams.
You may strive to be like them,
but seek not to make them like you.
For life goes not backward nor tarries with yesterday.

You are the bows from which your children
as living arrows are sent forth.
The archer sees the mark upon the path of the infinite,
and He bends you with His might
that His arrows may go swift and far.
Let your bending in the archer’s hand be for gladness;
For even as He loves the arrow that flies,
so He loves also the bow that is stable.

 TL;DR:

The National Conversation is lame because (see link). But it’s really cool that we can all collectively acknowledge that the National Conversation is lame. The first step towards solving any problem is realizing that we have a problem. I think we got that part down pat.

This feels like the Glastnost and Perestroika which were the nails in the coffin that led to the end of the USSR.

I look forward to seeing what the PAP’s going to do next, and I think it’s an exciting time of rebirth and renewal for Singapore. As long as we don’t let the Yahoo Comments people take control, I think we’re on the right path. Majulah Singapura!

Why is the death penalty carried out so secretively?

Some compelling words by Albert Camus in his eloquent ‘Reflections on the Guillotine’. The original essay is much longer, and worth its every word. Here are some abridged paragraphs, courtesy of cavalierio.blogspot.sg:

“The survival of such a primitive rite [the death penalty] has been made possible among us only by the thoughtlessness or ignorance of the public, which reacts only with the ceremonial phrases that have been drilled into it. When the imagination sleeps, words are emptied of their meaning: a deaf population absent-mindedly registers the condemnation of a man. But if the penalty is intended to be exemplary, how can a furtive assassination committed at night in a prison courtyard be exemplary? A law is applied without being thought out and the condemned die in the name of a theory in which the executioners do not believe.

If society justifies the death penalty by the necessity of the example, it must justify itself by making the publicity necessary. Yet, the power of intimidation reaches only the quiet individuals who are not drawn toward crime and has no effect on the hardened ones who need to be softened. And the condemned is cut in two, not so much for the crime he committed but by virtue of all the crimes that might have been and were not committed, that can be and will not be committed. The sweeping uncertainty in this case authorizes the most implacable certainty.

In order to continue claiming that the guillotine is exemplary, the State is consequently led to multiply very real murders in the hope of avoiding a possible murder which, as far as it knows or ever will know, may never be perpetrated. An odd law, to be sure, which knows the murder it commits and will never know the one it prevents. This punishment that penalizes without forestalling is indeed called revenge. Whoever has done me harm must suffer harm… whoever has killed must die. This is an emotion, and a particularly violent one, not a principle.

Beheading is not simply death. It is murder, to be sure. But it adds to death a rule, a public premeditation known to the future victim, which is in itself a source of moral suffering more terrible than death. Hence there is no equivalence. What then is capital punishment but the most premeditated of murders, to which no criminal’s deed, however calculated it may be, can be compared? The devastating, degrading fear that is imposed on the condemned for months or years is a punishment more terrible than death, and one that was not imposed on the victim. Two deaths are inflicted on him, the first being worse than the second, whereas he killed but once.

… Without absolute innocence, there is no supreme judge. Now, we have all done wrong in our lives even if that wrong, without falling within the jurisdiction of the laws, went as far as the unknown crime. There are no just people – merely hearts more or less lacking in justice. Living at least allows us a little of the good that will make up in part for the evil we have added to the world. Such a right to live, which allows a chance to make amends, is the natural right of every man, even the worst man. The lowest of criminals and the most upright of judges meet side by side, equally wretched in their solidarity. Without that right, moral life is utterly impossible. None among us is authorized to despair of a single man, except after his death, which transforms his life into destiny and then permits a definitive judgement. But pronouncing the definitive judgement before his death, decreeing the closing of accounts when the creditor is still alive, is no man’s right. On this limit, at least, whoever judges absolutely condemns himself absolutely.”

And Camus cites the Italian philosopher Beccarria, who sums up the illogicality, and thus the grossest injustice, of the death penalty:

“If it is important to give the people proofs of power often, then executions must be frequent; but crimes will have to be frequent too, and this will prove that the death penalty does not make the complete impression that it should, whence it results that it is both useless and necessary.”

I have been volunteering at Singapore Prisons for many weeks now- and while I can’t talk about the specific details (a valid and understandable security issue), I do think I can talk about what the experience has been like- and it’s been nothing short of mind-opening. These guys are regular human beings like you and me- but they’re cloistered off away from the visible world- just like the aged and the disabled. We anesthetize ourselves against the harsh decisions we make.

Here’s what I feel- if we truly believe the death penalty is necessary, then the execution should be done in public, on live television, and every man, woman and child should know about it. After all, the executioner isn’t hanging the person- he’s merely the tool. WE are hanging the person, as a country. That person is being killed on our behalf- how dare we look away? What right do we have to be willfully ignorant? (If the ignorance is incidental- well, that’s something we can and should work on.)

I don’t completely agree with Camus though I admire his prose and his thought processes- but I find it despicable how secretive the death penalty is. Do you know how many people we’ve hung on our collective name, on our collective payroll, on our collective conscience, and for what reason?

It doesn’t matter whether it’s right or wrong- to me, that’s just a power struggle. Might makes right. But what does matter to me is that we do not go into the decision blind. We are killing people every year, every month, for whatever reason. We have a right to know. We have an obligation to know.

Economics- or applied common sense- tells us that uninformed consumers make bad decisions. It doesn’t matter whether you believe that the death penalty is good or bad, you will go through some changes once you meet and talk to a person who’s been put in chains, who’s subsequently hung- on your behalf. Whether they deserve it or not.

TL;DR:

I wonder what I’d write if there were a death penalty essay question in General Paper this year. I suppose ultimately- it shouldn’t be something that’s off the table, but if we’re going to make a call like that, we’d better own it, own our decision.

Meeting PM Lee: The Aftermath

Somebody linked me to this video of PM Lee at (I believe) a PAP Rally. It might be a little outdated, being uploaded back in 2008. So I’m guessing this was in the lead-up to 2006.

Here’s an example of a situation where I strongly disagree with PM Lee. This isn’t one of his finer moments. In fact, this is the sort of politics that unnecessarily divides and polarizes Singapore.

“What is the Opposition’s job? It’s not to help the PAP do a better job, their job is to make life miserable for me, so that I screw up, and they can come in and sit, where I am here, and take charge. Supposing we had a parliament with 10, 20 Opposition members out of 80- then, instead of spending my time thinking of what is the right policy for Singapore, I’m going to spend all my time- I have to spend all my time thinking, “What is the right way to fix them? What is the right way to buy my own supporters over? How can I solve this week’s problem, and forget about next year’s challenge?

Here PM is using some fallacious arguments. He uses a straw man argument on the Opposition, generalizing that their job is to engage in divisive mud-slinging- the kind we see in the US, for instance, where it often seems that one party is more interested in seeing the other party fail than in seeing the country prosper. (Now, this doesn’t mean that the Opposition’s arguments are crystal clear either.) He also creates a false dichotomy, saying “all my time”, as if you can only have one thing or the other- a superdominant PAP, or petty politics. I personally believe we can relieve the PAP of their superdominance and have mature, respectful political discourse- and similarly, right now we seem to have a superdominant PAP and petty politics at the same time. (I’m not saying that ALL our political discourse is petty- but the fact is that the two can and do co-exist.)  PM isn’t doing Singapore any favours by using such flawed arguments and simplistic thinking. I know for a fact that he doesn’t think in such black-and-white terms, so it is rather insulting that he’d use such arguments on Singaporeans. That said, we’re all guilty of this at some point or another. I’m no saint, neither are you.

Now, let’s not pretend that all Opposition members have noble intentions 24/7. Nobody does– not even the PAP or the PM, and definitely not me, as a blogger. To borrow a line from some religious folk (hehe), we’re all bloody sinners lah. Pointing it out in others doesn’t make us any better.

We all weigh our personal interests and benefits together with the social good, and it isn’t always congruent- sometimes it is in our immediate self-interest to sling a little mud. (I have done this before, and I am not proud of it.) It’s very natural of us to be inadvertently hostile towards people we disagree with.

What’s the solution here? I think we need to work together as a community- I think we need to remind each other to be civil and respectful. Sometimes I’m going to go overboard, and I’m going to need you to hold me accountable. Same for anybody in the PAP, same for anybody in the WP, same for anybody- period. We can’t trust anybody to take the moral high ground 24/7. Bono would say that we gotta carry each other. That’s the only way forward, methinks.

Okay, I attack the PAP a bit already right? Time to switch gears for a while. I found this on Facebook, from a page titled “Fabrications about the PAP“.

Here we have a quote from Pritam Singh of the WP- and in Pritam’s defense, I have no idea if he actually said this, and I don’t know anything at all about the context in which he said this. Let us assume it is true, because Singaporeans always check our facts before posting anything, right? (Joke, joke. Relax. We’re all human.)

Here’s what I don’t like- I don’t like the phrase “retake the online space”. It implies that the online space is up for grabs to begin with, as if it’s some sort of limited real estate that can only be monopolized by one party or the other, a fortress to be held with a standing army.

The online space isn’t a limited piece of real estate that only one party has a monopoly over. 

We have a broad range of diverse views and every civil, thinking and civic minded Singaporean deserves to be heard. (I personally believe that we should weed out spiteful, hurtful behaviour, but that’s just my perspective.)

The government does not own the online space; we do. Pritam here (if he really did say what he said) is creating an us-vs-them mentality between the public and the government. I don’t really like this: “Should we let them?”

I’m being protective of Andrew here, and I do have a vested interest as a blogger (if I can call myself one). But I just don’t like seeing such war-like language. (Insert ad hominem joke about how Sikhs are a warrior-caste… I kid, I kid. I’m dating a Sikh girl. They’re wonderful people. I have to say this, otherwise she’ll kill me. [ On a side-note, I’m just testing waters here to see if anybody gets offended by these sort of comments… personally I think civil discourse should be fundamentally respectful, but it should also be lively and fun. Is this offensive? On a further side note, I’d like to quickly plug Comedy Masala, which I think is one of the best things to happen to Singapore. We all need more laughs.] )

Okay now I must attack Andrew too, to be fair. Let’s say Pritam is right, and Andrew HAS been pathologically “exposing” the WP as an “incapable” party. (I’m not sure, I haven’t actually been reading everything Andrew’s been writing.) How like that? I think Pritam does have a right to say “Hey, this guy everyday criticizing WP ah?” He does. The question I want to ask is- is this necessarily bad for civil discourse in Singapore? I think the answer is it depends, and it depends on how it is done. Again, the public house (hur hur) is large enough to encompass everybody’s perspectives. I personally think that WP is a capable party- and frankly, even if they’re an “incapable party”, I’d vote them in anyway, because diversity is the only survival strategy. (You may validly disagree.)

(How do we even tell if a party is capable or not, anyway? I’d like to give more people a chance to have a say in Parliament- I have faith in Singapore’s fundamental pragmatism and our civil service that things won’t actually fall apart just because someone different is in Parliament. Here’s a thought- if Singapore can’t handle having non-PAP members in Parliament, then we’re treading pretty dangerous ground, because we’re putting all our eggs in one basket and being overly-dependent on a single source of power. And if you pay attention to Singapore’s history- we’ve always been pragmatic enough to spread our eggs out, to avoid being over-dependent on any one thing in every single field… except politics. I think that needs to change, if we are to stay relevant and effective as a society.

Most importantly of all: I have been humbled by the responses to my “Meeting PM Lee” article- but above all, I am incredibly proud of how civil the comments have been. Go and check it out- everybody discussing politics in a civil and respectful manner. We can do it. It can be done. Let’s make it happen.

TL;DR:

Sometimes PM Lee and PAP folk can do or say things that are bad for the “national conversations” that define Singapore.

Sometimes WP and other Opposition folk can do or say things that are bad for “national conversations” that define Singapore.

Sometimes bloggers like myself and Andrew can do or say things that are bad for… you get the picture.

But the National Conversations must be all-encompassing. We need everybody on board, we need to hear everybody out, we need to be civil and respectful, and we need to hold each other accountable and say “Hey, you don’t need to be nasty to one another, we all want the same thing, even if we have different ideas on how we want it.”

PS: Do read Molly Meek’s response. It’s well-written and an important perspective that needs to be heard. Above all else, be respectful. To everyone. Majulah Singapura.

PPS: If you’re frustrated and disillusioned, here’s a reminder of how far we’ve come: